Could California be a step closer toward determining its own food safety standards?

In response to overwhelming public opposition to its livestock tracing policies, the USDA announced last week that it is revising the standards for its National Animal Identification System. In a surprising yet welcome move, a federal agency is abandoning a blanket policy approach on a heavily lobbied issue and all because of grassroots action. Yet this may not be the lasting victory the majority of farmers and ranchers were hoping for. Enforcement of new federal mandates for animal identification may simply be shifted to the states in an end-run around the sovereignty of California farmers.

In 2002, technology and agribusiness interests merged, forming the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). Lobbying pressure then made animal identification a national policy issue. By the following year, the USDA was happy to oblige considering export markets were demanding peace of mind in the wake of the Mad Cow Disease scare. The plan was to tag and track the movements of all livestock in the country with radio frequency transmitters or ISO microchips, all in the name of food safety.

The USDA’s initial support of the project involved a policy of voluntary cooperation. We all know where “voluntary proposals” lead when federal agencies are involved, especially when their stated goal is 100% participation. Instead of simply requiring testing for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease) for all meats produced for export, the USDA saw a “cheaper” route to appeasement of foreign trade partners by having the appearance of food safety.

Never mind that such outbreaks as Mad Cow Disease were the result of a centralized food supply and that traceability of livestock could only be ineffectual in preventing or even discovering the origin of the majority of foodborne illnesses since traceability stops at the slaughter house. Even with the understanding that dangerous pathogens are transmitted mainly during the packing and handling phase of the food supply, industry leaders forged ahead seeking two mutual aims: to reassure foreign markets with claims of “stricter regulations” and to plow under small competitors using the high costs of compliance with a nationalized animal tracking program. Thus NAIS was born.

From its inception, NAIS was staunchly opposed by small to medium sized ranchers, hobby farmers and local food advocates. Its mandates were costly to small producers who didn’t abide by economies of scale and were unwarranted in the world of natural, free range agriculture. Although the USDA claimed NAIS was a voluntary program, its regulations were foisted upon states through grants to institute involuntary state programs.

Judith McGeary, Executive Director of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), a notable political advocacy voice for independent farmers, published these words on the organization’s website in response to Tom Vilsack’s recent announcement: “USDA has stated that it is refocusing its efforts on ‘a new, flexible framework’ that will apply only to animals moved in interstate commerce and encourage the use of ‘lower-cost’ technology.” Ms. McGeary, skeptical of the federal agency’s reversal was able to glean a reassuring statement from Secretary Vilsack during a conference call with the USDA last Friday. “I asked whether the agency would continue using federal funding to pressure states to adopt the program through cooperative agreements. In response, Secretary Vilsack stated that USDA has gotten a ‘failing grade’ on NAIS and that he does NOT intend to try to implement it through the back door.”

Whether or not the promises of an agricultural secretary can be taken as a political victory for small farmers is questionable. The new USDA policy will call on individual states to design their own programs to meet federal standards. According to Secretary Vilsack, these standards will be suggested by an advisory committee of “state animal health leaders” to be convened this summer.

If the pro-national animal identification stance of the California Farm Bureau is any indication, small farmers should view this as a tactical victory in a larger, enduring struggle for food freedom in California. Jeff Fowle, chairman of the California Farm Bureau Federation beef advisory committee said in a February 10th CFBF press release that it is in the best interest of every state to have traceability in the event of a disease outbreak. “The longer there’s uncertainty, the greater the economic downfall, not only for that particular industry but for that state,” says Fowle. But FARFA contends, “If tracing is a market benefit, let the market implement it, not a mandatory government program using our tax dollars. Any such program should be voluntary, non-coercive, allow for true competition, and paid for by the participants.”

You can read a personal thank you letter from Judith McGeary, on behalf of Farm and Ranch Alliance, to Secretary Vilsack  here. While applauding the cooperative action of the agency thus far, Ms. McGeary presses for clarification on the term “moved in interstate commerce” to finally rule out any federal involvement in intrastate livestock transactions. She further asks for assurance that all preferential treatment and incentives to states that agree to use federally sponsored tracking technology would cease stating the “USDA’s past history of using…cooperative agreements and disease control programs to push States into adopting NAIS is a major source of the distrust of USDA and state agriculture agencies.”

It’s time for Californians to make their own food safety standards. The first step would be to visit your local rancher and examine his methods. Actually witnessing the husbandry involved in the growth of your food let’s you buy with supreme confidence. Supporting local agriculture through the purchase of CSA shares or by buying produce directly from the farm negates the unknowns of the industrial meat market and provides the only true form of quality assurance in the realm of food. This is the assurance of being connected with the health and source of one’s food, and in so doing, keeping farmers accountable in their practices.